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10 April 2011

This house believes whistleblowers make the world a safer place: Part I

Pictures, audio and reaction from the first half of Saturday’s Frontline Club/New Statesman

By Staff Blogger

There were some laughs. There was some heckling. There was a man blowing an actual whistle.

Yesterday’s New Statesman/Frontline debate offered 900 people – including droves of photographers and camera crews – the chance to hear Julian Assange and others debate the motion: “This house believes that whistleblowers make the world a safer place.”

Assange, tall and sleek in a navy suit, took to the stage in a blizzard of camera flashes, reminding the audience that the fascination with this controversial figure is far from dying down. He sat between the two other proponents of the motion, Clayton Swisher of the al-Jazeera transparency unit and Mehdi Hasan of the New Statesman.

On the right sat their opponents: Sir David Richmond, former director of defence and intelligence atthe British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Bob Ayers, former director of the US department of defence Information Systems Security Programme, and the author and commentator Douglas Murray. (The exclusively male line-up on the panel prompted a shout from the floor: “Where are the women?”)

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The New Statesman editor, Jason Cowley, introduced the debate (picture here) and set out the rules: each speaker had seven minutes to make his case, during which the other side could offer points of information. A quick show of hands showed that the majority of the audience started in favour of the motion, so the opposition clearly had its work cut out.

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Swisher was up first: in a low-key performance, he spoke of a “culture of collusion between mainstream media and government”, which he said compromised the role of holding power to account. He argued that governments have perfected the art of anonymous speech – with leaks when it suits them – reminding the audience of the “senior officials” keen to tell newspapers about the “evidence” for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in the lead-up to the Iraq war.

It is vital that journalists mediate leaked information, he said. As Samira Shackle reported him saying on the NS live blog: “There needs to be a discussion of the ethics of what to disclose (eg, names of MI6 agents). There is no point in giving a deluge of data without contextualising it and saying why it matters.”

Swisher got the biggest round of applause when he offered a reason for why Assange’s relationship with the press has been so turbulent. “They’re hating on him because he got a scoop they didn’t,” he said.

Next up was David Richmond, who opened with: “Blowing the whistle can be justified – but not everyone who leaks can be called a whistleblower.” Our security and defence depends on secrecy, he said. “Freedom of information is not the same as an information free-for-all.” As @saradotdub wrote on Twitter: “Both sides of this debate assume someone gets to decide what we know: whistleblowers or governments.”

Richmond added that intelligence agenices cannot operate if their methods are exposed to public view, prompting Mehdi Hasan to jump up with the first point of information. He asked how intelligence agencies could defend bugging the UN (a revelation from the WikiLeaks embassy cables), even demanding to see records of diplomats’ air miles? Richmond replied that the US state department made “fools of themselves” on that one. He concluded his speech with the words: “If the right balance is not being struck, the democratic way to address this is not whistleblowing.”

It was a convincing performance. As @psmith wrote, he “makes fair points: parliament, courts and media should be more democratic so there is less need for leaks”.

As Richmond sat down, Julian Assange sprang to his feet. Folding his arms at the lectern – his usual speaking stance, according to Assange-watchers – he took the audience through several wars, asking if they could have been prevented by whistleblowers. (Audio here from an audience member.) As the cameras clattered, he went on, asking: how are we going to know if the secrecy process is working or not? The only way we can know if information is legitimately kept secret is to know it.


In a catchy turn of phrase, he spoke of the “original sin of censorship”. Could a leaker have prevented the Vietnam war? If David Kelly had not just spoken to Andrew Gilligan, but more widely, could the “dodgy dossier” have been exposed in time to prevent the Iraq war? He then argued that whistleblowers prevented an attack on Iran in 2007. (Update: video available here.)

Assange closed his speech by defending the need for anonymous whistleblowing – which is the reason WikiLeaks was set up. Although few whistleblowers face jail, he said, many lose their jobs. “When whistleblowers speak anonymously they can feel proud that they have changed history . . . and move on.”

He referred to the plight of Bradley Manning, garlanding the sentence with two “allegeds” (Assange has never confirmed Manning as a source, and says that the WL site is set up in such a way that even he doesn’t know who his leakers are).

Finally, he said, the WikiLeaks cables have had effects that many Britons won’t have heard about – as a result of Cablegate, he claimed, there is a huge anti-corruption movement in India. Of course whistleblowers make the world a safer place, he concluded.

That’s it for part one – the second part, featuring the remaining three speakers, plus floor contributions from the whistleblowers Annie Machon and Paul Moore, can be found here.